It all started with a hooded tracksuit worth under £ 30. The junk article, processed online at midnight a second on Christmas Day because it was too bulky, was the first in a torrent of festive returns for ZigZag Global, a company specializing in handling online returns.
In one hour, 709 products were returned online via ZigZag; at 3.51 a.m., a £ 99 off-the-shoulder dress was the first item to be dropped into an InPost locker, and when newsagents started opening at 10 a.m., queues began to drop into an InPost locker. started training at counters to return unwanted items.
Shoppers returned more merchandise than ever over Christmas as the cancellation of the holidays, returning to work from home, and switching to online shopping resulted in a huge amount of junk merchandise.
Since Christmas, returns have increased 24% from the previous year, according to ZigZag, who works with Boohoo, Selfridges and Gap. Returns specialist ReBound saw even higher demand, with returns in December 40% higher than the previous year.
With up to half of the clothes purchased online returned to some retailers, the whole process is expected to cost businesses around £ 7 billion a year, according to a 2020 study by consultancy firm KPMG. Measuring environmental costs is tricky, but the transportation, storage and disposal of items that cannot be resold because damaged or dirty can weigh heavily on brands’ carbon footprints, and raise troubling questions about the dark side of the Internet. sales boom.
Anita Balchandani, of consultancy McKinsey, says managing the flow of returned goods is a ‘sustainability imperative for the industry’, not just looking at the impact of ‘last mile’ delivery to and from homes – but also what happens to an item that is no longer wanted.
While the percentage of items returned by online shoppers declined at the start of the pandemic, it has since increased as trends have changed: The easy-to-slip tracksuits, popular in the early days of telecommuting, have been ditched in favor of profit. from more structured items like suits and dresses, thanks to the return of weddings and office work. Last month, online fast fashion specialist Boohoo was forced to lower its sales and profit expectations, in part because of the change in habits.
About 15% of electrical devices returned after being purchased online are disposed of, according to a major reprocessor, because they are not repairable or not worth repairing or cleaning. Each brand or retailer has a different SKU, but since it costs up to £ 20 to reprocess each item, many returns cost retailers money. Many small products, unless they are still intact in their original packaging, will never be reused.
Considerable effort is involved in handling returns. Checking that the goods are in good working order, clean and that any software has been erased from images or personal data, must be done manually and is a long and sometimes delicate process. While some brands provide reprocessors with free parts to fix defective items and prevent them from going to landfill, others do not.
A large, expensive item, like a washing machine or even a food processor, is likely to be checked, repaired, and resold – possibly through an auction site like eBay – for 15% or 20% less than its asking price. by retail.
But the best that can be expected from most broken or used hair clippers or electric toothbrushes is that they be taken apart for recycling.
Cosmetics are another delicate area. Unless they are completely intact and in their original packaging, resale is not possible due to the risk of hygiene.
About 80% of returned garments are likely to be resold without major work – perhaps requiring rewrapping or steam ironing. Of the rest, most can be reprocessed, but around 5% are likely to be deemed unfit for resale, either because they are too damaged or because they are potentially unsanitary, such as underwear or worn out swimwear.
Items that have clearly been in the evening, have the labels removed, or are marked with cosmetic products may not be easily rearranged for sale by the original retailer and, again, the value of that item will influence the decision to put it through a cleaning or repair process or abandoned.
Al Gerrie, Managing Director of ZigZag Global, says, “Fast fashion has a lifecycle of around six weeks. If he spends three or four weeks in the store, he loses value during this time and, if he cannot return [in time], it will be less attractive or unsaleable. If this is a Christmas-themed post, you might have to wait until next year.
Many unwanted items can be sold in bulk to charities or resellers who repair them or then reuse them for sale on eBay or Depop.
For the rest, the vast majority of large retailers now send these unwanted items to charity or for recycling, but a proportion would still be burned or sent to landfill despite the furore over such a practice in recent years.
However, the pressure to adopt a more sustainable behavior and reduce costs is pushing retailers to reduce the amount of unwanted products.
Laura Gee, of another ReBound Returns Specialist, says: “Brands are on a learning curve. They get better at [reprocessing] because buyers are increasingly concerned with sustainability.
Tech companies like ZigZag and ReBound help retailers more closely track returned items, monitoring the reasons a sale went unsuccessful and making decisions about where and how to reprocess merchandise without necessarily bringing them all back. in the UK, if sold overseas.
Last year eBay said it saw an increase in the number of retailers setting up their own online stores to eliminate unwanted products and seconds.
Other techniques to reduce return rates include posting customer reviews indicating the size of an item of clothing, using avatars to allow a virtual try-on on a dress, or encouraging customers to return a dress. item in a store where they can pick up and try the alternative. .
ZigZag’s Geerie says, “Even fast fashion retailers are increasingly aware of corporate social responsibility and are more sustainable and try to recoup product whenever possible. It’s a change in the market for good but not cheap, they are definitely losing money on some products. “
The change is partly driven by the threat of legislation. In France, companies must monitor what happens to unsold items and from this month onwards it is forbidden to destroy them. Other European countries are expected to follow suit.
In the UK, charities have called for an anti-waste law to be introduced after Amazon was forced to refuse to send household items such as laptops and televisions to landfill after employees left behind. been filmed by ITV last year placing these products in boxes labeled “destroy”. . The company said the items were donated or recycled.
Balchandani says better consumer education on the effects of a more selective purchasing will be key to reducing the unnecessary carousel of returned goods.
“In a world where consumers are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint, I don’t think brands talk enough about how you consume in a more thoughtful way,” she says.